Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
A few months ago, a channel popped up in the anti-vaccine recesses of the fringe-friendly social media platform Telegram and began extolling the virtues of the “Niatonin Protocol,” a daily regimen of high doses of niacin, butyric acid, and a few other supplements. (The exact cocktail is situational and ever-shifting.) Through a barrage of anonymous anecdotes and jumbled, supposedly scientific explanations, the group argued this program was a surefire “antidote” for the dangers—some real but rare, others seemingly invented—that they associate with safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.
The group has grown rapidly, and several other notable anti-vax channels and sites have picked up and signal-boosted its contents. Recently, another large Telegram channel opened a cross-post promoting the protocol with this note: “Just as the C19 vaccinations were designed to harm, more and more research is being done by scientists looking at treatment and reversal… Keep the faith, stay strong, and stay connected.”
Dmitry Kats, the man who developed the Niatonin Protocol as a supposed potential prophylactic against and treatment for COVID-19 itself, told The Daily Beast he didn’t start the primary channel promoting it as a so-called vaccine-reversal regimen, nor the chat room connected to that channel. “I don’t want people to think this is particularly for vaccine injury-related issues,” he explained. “I’m not anti-vax at all… I feel like it’s working brilliantly for many people.”
He added that he’s asked the Telegram community in question to change its name several times to something less vaccine-centric, but that “no one replies.”
However, Kats does actively and frequently participate in the channel’s chat room, offering advice on dosing and occasionally making subtle nods to vaccine fears, like referring to mRNA vaccines in scare quotes. (He says he’s just sharing factual information to help people learn more.) On other platforms across the web—podcasts, videos, social media—he’s shared memes that position his protocol as a vaccine-injury treatment, appeared to equate elements of the effects of the vaccines and those of COVID-19 itself, and even stated: “I think the jabs are in a way kind of seamlessly trying to get the nanotech to be, you know, embedded within these receptors… to remote sap our energy for harvest.”
Kats told The Daily Beast he meant that statement—which echoes longstanding, baseless, far-right conspiracies—to be conditional: If he were to indulge anti-vax conspiracy theories, then that’s the one he’d find most plausible. But it’s hard to know how seriously to take this explanation, as he’s invoked similar conspiracy concepts, like the term plandemic and concerns about 5G harms, on and off on social media.
Kats acknowledged that his language is perhaps at times careless and “feelings-driven,” and that it could stir up anti-vax sentiments he claims he does not support. But he says he thinks that anyone feeling bad after receiving a jab, no matter the cause, may stand to benefit from his protocol, which he frames as a potential cure-all, with the power to stop or reverse the symptoms of acute COVID, long-haul COVID, and many other diseases and chronic conditions. He added that, while his protocol “does not even attempt to reverse the vaccine,” he does believe that it can “reverse all the deficits of the vaccine,” eliminating any negative side effects and improving its efficacy.
Several doctors and researchers who reviewed Kats’ claims and reasoning, including a leading expert on the medicinal uses of niacin, told The Daily Beast that these beliefs are unfounded. Jeffrey Klausner, an infectious disease expert formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a Daily Beast contributor, went so far as to call them “completely bogus.”
Still, to get the word out, Kats argued, “you have to kind of appeal to both crowds.”
Suffice it to say public health experts don’t appreciate this apparent pandering and balancing act any more than they do the many unabashedly anti-vaccine voices hyping this and other products they claim will revert long-term bodily damage that COVID-19 vaccines don’t actually do.
Pandemic misinformation watchers told The Daily Beast that they’ve noticed a massive spike in chatter about tools and techniques created or repurposed for this dubious project since mid-summer. Many are lo-fi, DIY ideas, like the caustic borax bath that went viral this past month, following a report by NBC News. But a fair number are monetized. This sudden surge in the visibility of—and apparent demand for—goods and services directly marketed or indirectly promoted for COVID vaccine-reversal purposes is in some ways actually a heartening development, public health experts say, as it signals the success of vaccination drives.
But it also represents a potentially dangerous new twist in vaccine misinformation efforts as hundreds of Americans continue to perish every day at the hands of an ongoing pandemic.
“There’s a large ecosystem of people promoting products and recipes for this,” said Ciaran O’Connor of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a pandemic-misinformation watchdog group. “It’s notable to see detox figures emerge as respected voices so quickly, almost out of nowhere.”
Some actors may benefit from this surge in interest in oblique ways. Kats, for example, says he shares info on his protocol for education only, but that he “can’t stop people… seeing what I’m disseminating and trying it on themselves—and getting successful results.”
However, he offers $225 consultations to help individuals figure out the right dosing for their bodies and contexts. (They should always discuss this with a doctor, he said.) He also nudges people towards a supplement retailer, which he claims has the purest and best product, and gets a small commission on each referral sale. (The retailer did not respond to a request for comment.) And he solicits donations to support his work.
Kats told The Daily Beast “people were begging to donate” to him, and that his income from the protocol hasn’t cracked six figures yet, so he’s just making enough to pay his bills. He added that if and when he starts making more, he’ll put that money towards eventual clinical trials that he believes will prove the efficacy of his protocol for treating COVID-19—and a slew of other health issues.
“I’m not trying to grift people or just talking nonsense here,” he argued.
However, the fact remains that he appears to be earning money off of anti-vax fears.
Many other individuals are far more direct, selling products and services marketed both clearly and primarily for the reversal of supposed vaccine injuries. Their offerings run the gamut, from vitamin infusions and controversial ozone therapy to bullshit nanotech detection and disabling devices and meditations that suggest the power of the mind can hamstring the vaccines. (Kats objects to being lumped in with “quacks” selling products like these.)
Wild as monetized vaccine-reversal services and tools may seem, many experts who monitor the anti-vaxxer scene expected these sorts of ventures would crop up eventually.
“I was rather surprised not to have noted any until fairly recently,” said David Gorski, a surgeon who’s followed and reported on anti-vax talking points and tactics for about 30 years now, often writing under the pen name Orac.
“There’s always been this industry of ‘vaccine detox’ products,” added Peter J. Hotez, a prominent vaccine researcher and anti-vax watcher, and a Daily Beast contributor.
Many of these older, pre-pandemic items and services resemble, or are identical to, the ones people have started promoting to tackle the supposed toxicity of COVID-19 vaccines. Some sources have even pushed cocktails of supplements featuring niacin in the past. (Kats argues that there’s a lot of functionally fake or bad niacin out there and that the vitamin is only optimally effective against COVID-19, long-haul COVID, and any potential negative side-effects of the vaccines in the unique formulation he’s created—and is continually refining.) A few people have built entire businesses centered around these products and services.
“It’s all bunk,” Hotez stressed. “But it has made money for these people.”
“Any product or service that claims to undo or reverse the impact of the vaccine is based on a lie,” O’Connor added.
In the past, promoters focused on claims that their products sucked out or neutralized the effects of heavy metals like mercury contained in vaccines, Gorski noted. (A trove of studies and data show that the miniscule levels of metals included in many vaccines are overall quite safe.) They’ve only had to shift their focus slightly for new mRNA vaccines, he explained, to talk about sucking out or neutralizing the effects of that genetic material and the spike proteins they encode for.
In truth, the mRNA in vaccines actually breaks down swiftly after doing its job, and our bodies clear out these spike proteins within a couple of weeks. Although COVID vaccines can cause some mild discomfort for a few days, and in exceptionally rare cases may trigger serious reactions with the potential to cause lasting harm, they are overwhelmingly safe and effective.
However, old “vaccine detox” products usually targeted vaccine-hesitant people forced to get jabs for their jobs, and (more often) parents scared into falsely believing that the lifesaving vaccines they were “coerced” into giving their children would ultimately maim or kill them. At least until recently, COVID vaccine mandates were rare, the vaccines were not approved for children, and vaccine rates were low in many anti-vax hotspots. So, Gorski notes, while anti-vaxxers have expressed concerns about the purported dangers of the vaccines since their rollout, shared stories of supposed vaccination regrets following alleged injury, and mused about how they’d protect or cure themselves if mandates came down, there just wasn’t a market for products like these. Accordingly, misinformation watchers say that until this summer, many of the voices currently talking up vaccine reversal options were solely focused on dubious alternative-health tools and tactics for warding off or treating COVID itself.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty
Notably, Kats told The Daily Beast that, before the pandemic hit, he was a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, researching the optimal timing and level of physical activity that might help elderly people ward off dementia. But that research led him to some big, bold conclusions about fundamental laws governing the body and illness, he said. As the pandemic started to hit, he shifted his focus to COVID because that’s where all research seemed to be moving, and thus where he felt he could make an impact. So he called upon “a background in chemistry from one of my bachelor degrees” and “started hitting the books more” to find some way of making his ideas COVID-actionable.
A UNC representative told The Daily Beast that, while Kats did study there, he did not, as he has claimed, obtain his PhD. Kats, who leans heavily on this credential and whose fans and clients often refer to him as Dr. Kats, insists UNC had all but graduated him. He claims they just never sent him a diploma; he suspects that’s because his research threatened their entrenched pharmacological interests. He made numerous bold accusations against the university, arguing they are just one of many actors that have tried to silence him and censor his breakthrough findings. The UNC spokesperson said that Kats has a history of making inflammatory claims and that they have repeatedly tried to get him to cease and desist from claiming he got a degree from or is in any way still affiliated with the school.
“If someone is advertising a protocol or product and frames it as some insider knowledge or something that has been ‘censored or hidden’ by governments, scientists, or public health services,” O’Connor added as a friendly reminder, “that should be an immediate red flag.”
Tara Kirk Sell, a Johns Hopkins University public health expert, added that there “may be some small kernel of truth” in ideas like Kats’ protocol. Niacin, for example, does have a few proven health benefits and there is limited but ongoing research into its efficacy as an adjunct to treatments for a slew of conditions, including COVID-19. But these kernels are usually “manipulated or twisted to form a misleading conclusion,” she told The Daily Beast.
Notably, every medical expert The Daily Beast consulted for this story said that Kats’ specific claims about the supposedly miraculous potential of his regimen, and the logic he offers to support them, do not square with the preponderance of scientific evidence and understanding.
“None of this really stands up to how vaccines or diseases work,” Sell told The Daily Beast upon a brief review of Kats’ protocol.
“This is total BS,” added Henry Ginsberg, a doctor and Columbia University researcher who studies niacin and its clinical uses.
In an interview, Kats acknowledged that when he started developing his protocol, he did make a number of major assumptions and logical leaps—he referred to this as “magic-wand waving.” He described this initial work as “kind of amateurish for a scientist, jumping the gun.” He also acknowledged that, for lack of any rigorous experimental evidence, to this day he mainly draws upon individual anecdotes, many of them gathered via social media, to back his claims about the efficacy of his protocol. He insisted that his research has improved over time. But he noted he has yet to write up a clear and compelling overview of his current findings and rationales.
“I completely understand how people are getting the wrong impression about me and the information / protocol,” Kats wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. But he argues that these “senior scientists are failing to see” how all of the elements of his protocol stack together. He suggested that they all read a massive Twitter thread, written by a Telegram chat group member, summarizing his logic and linking off to articles that supposedly support it—although he cautioned that this individual is not “scientifically objective about vaccines.” This, he bets, would convince them “that what I’m trying to disseminate … is not actually ‘bullshit’ but highly significant and potentially impactful science.”
In the summer of 2020, as the pandemic spiraled, the FDA sent Kats a letter, noting that he was selling a niacin-based product using unsubstantiated claims that it could “mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19” and telling him to cease and desist. Kats insists he never actually sold a product—that a website advertising a new supplement he’d set up that triggered this notice was a clever ruse, intended to get an unresponsive FDA to contact him and hear him out about his research. However, around the same time, he was making strong statements about the supposedly clear COVID-curing potential of niacin. (Kats says he was over-enthused about the supposed potential of his protocol early on, but is now more cautious with his language.) And in late 2020, a site called Niacin Cures Covid also launched, promoting his protocol and featuring consultation booking and donation links. (Kats insists he did not start this site either and has asked the person who runs it to change the name to something more cautious and reasonable, to no avail.)
Only this summer did his supporters appear to suddenly shift focus, repositioning the protocol as a solution for so-called vaccine issues within their circles.
“The people that are being targeted are all vulnerable to some degree, likely feeling scared or anxious,” argued O’Connor of the market for products and services that they believe can reverse alleged vaccine injuries. “What people like Kats do quite well is offer a simple narrative and a simple solution—take this and it will fix you—that may give people a feeling of control.”
In a certain light, the rapid rise in demand for products created or repurposed for COVID vaccine detox and reversal is actually a positive sign for public health. It means mandates are working, even on virulent vaccine skeptics. “For unvaccinated people who are vaccine-hesitant and aware of these products,” O’Connor added, “it’s possible they may decide to get vaccinated now, if they believe they can ‘undo’ the vaccine afterwards—even though this is a fallacious belief.”
Granted, not every vaccine-hesitant person believes these products work. As Gorski has pointed out, anti-vaxxers claim that mRNA vaccines fundamentally and permanently alter people’s DNA. (They don’t.) Few people convinced of this believe anything will reverse that alleged deleterious effect.
Still, “if a protocol is harmless and its existence leads some hesitant people to get vaccinated, I have a hard time getting militant about it,” said Gorski.
The problem is, they are not all harmless.
“False cures and detox methods, especially in large doses, can be harmful,” Sell told The Daily Beast.
Notably, health authorities claim that niacin supplements are not safe for people with certain chronic conditions, like liver disease, and that in large doses they can cause a rapid heartbeat, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other complications. Kats, whose protocol includes substantially larger-than-average doses of niacin (and other supplements), acknowledged that niacin is not for everyone. But he argued that such reports are “hit pieces” and that the right kind of niacin, in the right cocktail, presents “no actual safety issues” for most people. He did not present anything beyond anecdotes and bold theoretical suppositions to support this claim.
So people seeking vaccine-reversal products and services may be a meaningful and heartening public health barometer—showing the efficacy of vaccine mandates upon even the most reluctant actors. But it’s also a disturbing phenomenon. These tools and techniques further stoke already-raging yet baseless fears and controversies about the safety of vaccines. Then, in lieu of the fears they helped to fuel, they offer supposedly beneficial substances that may actually in some cases prove dangerous.
“If you feel unwell after being vaccinated, or in general,” O’Connor stressed, “you should contact a health-care professional instead of consulting information shared online by someone who claims to have information that might save you.”
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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